Library Director’s Notebook September, 2014 Tracy Chevalier, best known for her international...

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 2:56pm -- KChin

Library Director’s Notebook

September, 2014

Tracy Chevalier, best known for her international bestseller The Girl With the Pearl Earring, has also written another novel in which she uses her rich imagination to create a complex fictional story around an actual work of art.  In the case of her novel The Lady and the Unicorn, Chevalier’s story centers on  the creation of the famous tapestries known as The Seduction of the Unicorn which hang in a museum in Paris and are among the most highly-prized tapestries in the world.

The year is 1490 and the place Paris. Jean Le Viste, a rich parvenu, eager to solidify his status at the French court, decides to commission an expensive series of tapestries to hang in his salon.  Through the help of his agent, he engages the services of an arrogant, talented artist named Nicolas des Innocent, whose work has primarily involved the painting of miniature portraits of the female aristocracy and who convinces his patron to theme the tapestries around the seduction of the unicorn rather than the usual bloody battle scenes. 

As accomplished  a womanizer as he is as an artist, Nicolas des Innocent manages to seduce and impregnate a hapless  girl in the service of Jean Le Viste and to nearly ravish his eldest daughter within a few weeks of receiving the commission.  Sent off hastily to Brussels to supervise the creation of the tapestry, Nicolas des Innocent manages to roil up emotions at the master weaver’s well-regulated workshop and home as well.

In both Paris and Brussels the story is told through the voices and observations of various men and women whose lives are drawn into the creative and extremely demanding project of weaving the magnificent tapestries.   George de la Chappelle, the master weaver, must risk everything to make the tapestries, which might lead to making his fortune or equally might lead to his financial ruin.  His wife Christine , his son and his workers devote all their energies to the point of exhaustion to the task, knowing how much is at stake for everyone.  The most touching part of the story revolves around Alienor,  their blind daughter, whose intelligence and heighted awareness through her other senses make her a valuable member of both the family and the workshop.  Despite her usefulness and gentleness, however, her family knows that she will find few men willing to marry a blind girl; and it is with horror that Alienor comes to realize her father means to betroth her to a repulsive oaf in the dye trades named Jacques LeBeouf once the unicorn tapestries are completed.

Not only is this a lively, romantic, moving and suspenseful story, it also relates fascinating information about the skill and artistry involved in the making of  tapestries, the rigid social structure of the time, and the various  roles of women, sexuality and marriage in medieval society.  By the end of the book, through narrative and incident, the desires and hopes of all the principle characters have been revealed, their fates at least partially determined, and in a very few cases, their dreams fulfilled.

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